VAR giveth, and VAR taketh away.
In 2018, River Plate staged a memorable comeback in Brazil and reached the final of the Copa Libertadores with the aid of a controversial VAR penalty against Gremio. On Tuesday, the video resource was the Argentine giants’ main adversary as they narrowly failed to pull off an even more dramatic rescue operation. After losing 3-0 last week at home to Palmeiras of Brazil, River won the return game 2-0, and on the balance of play there could have been few complaints had they scored enough goals to make it to the final.
With a huge sigh of relief, Palmeiras can now party like it’s 1999 — the previous time they won the competition — while they await the winners of the other semifinal between local rivals Santos and Argentina’s Boca Juniors.
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Palmeiras flirted with disaster, and much of this was their own fault. Coach Abel Ferreira retained the system he used in the first leg — it worked in Buenos Aires, though his side rode their luck in the first half. It, however, was the wrong choice for this game. Right-back Marcos Rocha was mostly used as a right-sided centre-back, a role for which he is not well suited. Under pressure — and Palmeiras spent almost the entire game under pressure — it left them with with a back five, trusting their capacity on the counter-attack, but effectively starved of possession as River looked to win the ball back close to goal. Palmeiras were outnumbered in central midfield, allowing River to build up a head of steam. And, just as last week, they were loaded to their right, allowing too much space to River’s marauding right-back Gonzalo Montiel.
There were brief flickers of danger from Palmeiras strikers Luiz Adriano and Rony, but River spent most of the game passing through the Brazilians’ midfield, and right from the start the home defence was at full stretch.
River pulled two goals back before half-time. Centre-back Roberto Rojas headed home powerfully from a corner, and then a Nico De La Cruz cross was hooked on by Matias Suarez for Rafael Santos Borre to drift behind Rocha and nod in a second.
At half-time, Ferreira took off attacking midfielder Gustavo Scarpa and sent on Breno Lopes, a clear message that he intended to defend and spring the counter.
But it never happened.
It was one-way traffic, and soon after the restart River drew level on aggregate — or so it seemed. The play was spread left, where Franco Angileri dinked a cross to the far post, emphatically volleyed back across and inside the corner by Montiel. Then came the VAR show. It took an age, but a narrow offside earlier in the move was discovered and the goal was ruled out.
As River’s pressure built, Ferreira finally made the switch that tightened up his midfield, bringing Gabriel Menino in from right wing-back to make three in the centre and letting Breno Lopes take care of the flank. It stemmed the tide, and things appeared to have turned decisively the way of Palmeiras inside the last 20 minutes when River had Rojas sent off. This was another controversial decision, though not one taken by the video referee. The second yellow card for Rojas was more of a clumsy clash than a cynical foul, but Uruguayan official Esteban Ostojich reached for his red.
Palmeiras had picked up plenty of cards and some, especially midfielder Danilo, seemed to be walking a tightrope. But it was River who found themselves down to 10 men.
Amazingly, it made no difference to the pattern of the game. Palmeiras are more comfortable on the counter — last week they made little use of half an hour against 10 men when they could have put the tie to bed — and still they found themselves forced back. River soon had a penalty, with Suarez going down under the challenge of Alan Empereur. Montiel was preparing to take the kick when VAR had a look and decided, probably correctly, that there had been little or no contact, and that Suarez was already on his way down, looking for the foul.
And still River kept going. Weverton in the Palmeiras goal was kept busy and, when he was beaten the post, was fortunate enough to have a man on the line to come to his rescue.
There was time for more VAR controversy in the 10th minute of stoppage time. Santos Borre got behind substitute defender Benjamin Kuscevic, and went down awkwardly. It was clumsy. But was it a foul? The referee went to the screen.
A huge decision was about to be taken but, surely to the referee’s relief, another narrow offside was found earlier in the move and Palmeiras were much shaken, but safely over the line. Their chance for glory will come on Jan. 30.
On Tuesday night, though, most of the glory goes to River Plate. If this is the end — as has been speculated — of the six and half year reign of coach Marcelo Gallardo, then he leaves on a high, lamenting that it was not quite high enough.